By Cy Musiker
Good actors often find inspiration for a role in their personal history.
Bay Area actress and director Margo Hall has gone a step further, writing and starring in “Be Bop Baby: A Musical Memoir.”
The new play is about her childhood, growing up in Detroit as the stepdaughter of the late Teddy Harris Jr., a jazz musician and teacher.
The project started out less as a play than a musical tribute to Harris, who worked with a galaxy of jazz and blues stars from the 1960s — Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughn, Barbara Streisand, and Aretha Franklin. He was also the musical director for the Supremes, in the years after Diana Ross had left the group.
Hall celebrates all that in the play, but gives him most credit for his role as teacher to dozens of young musicians.
“And so I grew up with all of these Detroit jazz cats who came in and out of my house,” Hall said in a recent interview. “He started a band, The New Breed Be Bop Society Orchestra, who rehearsed in our basement .” Graduates include jazz greats like James Carter and Geri Allen.
“And Teddy established a gig for them every Monday night,” Hall says, “at a club called Dummy George’s. So they were paid musicians.”
To tell that part of the story, the play features a 15-piece band led by San Francisco jazz composer and band leader Marcus Shelby, whose compositions have a lot in common with the music Harris taught his students.
“The purity of straight-ahead be bop swing. Because that’s what’s inside of me as well,” said Shelby. “The influence of the blues and of African-American music that is at the center of that.”
It was Shelby in fact who won a grant for the project from the Gerbode Foundation.
He’d collaborated with Hall before, writing incidental music for the theater company Campo Santo, of which Hall is a founding member.
For this project “she would send me MP3’s of her singing into a recorder,” Shelby says, “just the raw idea, and then that would be our starting point, the seed, and then we would work together and that would grow.”
Shelby wrote the music, everything from a circus tango (one of Hall’s grandmothers was a trapeze artist), to ballads and blues. Hall wrote the lyrics. “Because I’ve always said I love writing songs, and I’m a songwriter. But then I was put to the test.”
So Hall had the makings of an uncomplicated musical about her relationship to her step-dad.
“It started there, and then my real dad kept creeping in.” Hall says,” “He wasn’t supposed to be in it.”
Hall’s biological dad, Armsby Hall, and her mom divorced when she was just five years old. He was a good man, she says, but “a free spirit, who remarried twice and just wasn’t around much.” And then he came back into Hall’s life, just as she began working on this play.
“My mom passed in 2000.” Hall recalls. “Teddy died a few years later. And so my sister, unbeknownst to me, moves my father in.” Into her mother’s house, which inspired Hall to move her father into the play as well.”
“So there’s that question of blood is blood,” Hall says, “And my real father is challenging me in this play to say, ‘I’m your father.’ And I’m saying, ‘Well, actually Teddy was my father.’ So that’s sort of where the conflict comes in.”
Conflict in Hall’s play and real life.
Hall knows her older sisters will come from Detroit to see the show. But when we spoke last week, she didn’t know if her dad would accept her invitation. “The things I’m talking about with my father in this play, I haven’t talked to him fully about. So the question is, will he come see the play.”
If he does, Hall says, she’d tell her father, getting on in years, the things she’s lacked the courage to say in the past. “For him to realize that I forgive him. And that I really think it’s time we really share time together. Because as he says in the play, ‘God grants us today, right now.’ And we forget that a lot just in our relationships with everyone who we love and care about.”
Listen to Cy Musiker’s report on Margo Hall and how “Be Bop Baby” came together: